Monday, April 9, 2018

Book Review: Fantasyland by Kurt Andersen

This book illustrates the perils of trying to mount an emotional defense of rationality. Despite the size of the book, its pace is fast, because Andersen attempts to give all examples of what he calls the "fantasy-industrial complex," which in his telling ranges from the Puritans to Disney and Oprah. Half the chapters are four-star chapters, while half are two-star chapters, but it averages out to two stars because in his conclusion (which is far too short relative to the rest of the text), Andersen blithely tosses out the typical, stale view of non-American history as it was taught a few decades ago rather than the version being debated now, and that takes what could be a stirring call to reject illusion and turns it into just another screed. This is particularly frustrating because Andersen's central concept of the fantasy-industrial complex is really onto something, and it deserves a better book than this. I can say this with confidence because a much better (and shorter) book than this actually exists: The Demise of Virtue in Virtual America by David Bosworth. A comparison of Andersen and Bosworth is instructive: Andersen aspires to be H.L. Mencken, while Bosworth aims for Emerson. Andersen has particular blind spots when it comes to race, sex, and economics, while Bosworth is more balanced in his targets. For example, Andersen gives Big Pharma a pass while Bosworth focuses a chapter on that industry in a much shorter book. It would be a fruitful project to compare the two authors, because their politics, aims, and scope are very similar, but Andersen manages to alienate this reader while Bosworth welcomes. It doesn't help that Andersen accepts the standard historical stories uncritically, while authors like Marilynne Robinson (for the puritans) and Peter Harrison (for the Greeks and the Enlightenment) show that reality is much more interesting.  Maybe I should do to this book what Jefferson did to his Bible and paste together all the four-star chapters? It would be a decent book against the excesses of religion (both that of the institutional church and the Oprah institutions), and I think centering the book on the damage of the Satanic Panic of the 80s would make all the points Andersen should make. It's a shame that Andersen's own biases turn what should be a surgery into a shotgun blast. My frustration comes from this book being so close to being so right on, but it goes sideways in too many ways.

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